Tag: emotion

Emotion, Through Music, As Weather

In this article, I will leave emotion ungraspable; I do not wish to speak about it definitively. Rather, I would like to focus personally on the relationship, in my life, between music and emotion, blending these two unique realms into one cohabitating discussion. What is emotion? Singularly, I do not know, but combined with music, I do have some feelings…

The secrets behind emotion have been long sought. In 1962, psychologist Robert Plutchik wrote about emotion that “there is serious question about the reliability and meaningfulness of the verbal report. In the history of psychology, it has been pointed out many times that introspecting about our own emotions often changes them.”[1] The emotional appeal of music has been equally enchanting. In ca. 397 C.E., Saint Augustine wrote, “I must testify for myself that when I am moved more by the music than by its meaning, I feel this offense should be punished, and wish I had not listened to the cantor […] But you, Lord my God, hear me, heed, look on with pity, and heal me, before whom I am made a riddle to myself, which is the symptom of my sins.”[2]

And finally, in 2008, scientist Daniel Levitin embraced mystery in his explanation of music:

Scientists are in the business of wanting proof for everything, and I find myself caught somewhere in the metaphorical middle on this issue. As a musician, I’m reminded on a daily basis of the utterly ineffable, indescribable powers of music. […] Our scientific theories have to be able to reconcile this common experience and the strong intuition that music is—dare I say it?—magical.[3]

Emotion—a thing that Robert Plutchik found impossible to scientifically report—is expressed through music in a way that a daring Daniel Levitin called “magical,” and what a conflicted Saint Augustine called a “riddle.” Perhaps “magical” “riddle” is a good working definition for emotion in music. Like Levitin and Augustine, I am baffled too.

Perhaps “magical” “riddle” is a good working definition for emotion in music.

In the 1970s, composer John Cage used the weather to describe artistic process, observing that “many composers no longer make musical structures.  Instead, they set processes going.  A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.”[4] Like Cage’s use of this creative and non-technical definition, I will similarly use the weather as a way to discuss emotion expressed through music. This article will move like weather. And like a forecast, I hope to address what swirls around.[5]

Swirling air represents the meeting of diverse parts. Robert Plutchik acknowledged that there is a difference between “laboratory studies of pure, momentary emotions” and the “persistent mixed emotions of clinical experience.”[6] That is to say, the real-world application of emotion deals primarily in mixtures of emotions, rather than single, pure ones. Weather on Earth is complex, too: a mixing of cold and warm fronts, rainy on some days, stormy on others, partially rainy, partially stormy, partially cloudy, or partially sunny on others still. And there is no piece of music that is all any one emotion either. Good memories can be rendered only partially good through the loss of innocence; many find a deep comfort and contentment in feeling sadness. Emotion in music is an array of moving parts.

Like weather, emotions in music swirl wildly around. As disorienting as this whirlwind may be, we must never forget how fortunate we are to have the skies, the clouds, rain, thunder, lightning, and most importantly, the sun. The sustaining love of the sun is, after all, what makes all of this possible.

Nebulous as my approach may be, I hope this discussion will enrich our understanding of music, emotion, and our own selves. While I do not claim to hold technical qualifications to discuss the weather or emotional psychology, I do intend to write from my own experience, with sincerity and imagination. In the following sections, I will attempt to bring emotions to life, expressed in music, and retold as weather.

Clouds (Sadness)


Image: Mila Young

Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.

Clouds can weigh you down: clouds can make you question the existence of the sun. When I was finishing grad school abroad, I received news from back home that my parents were divorcing. I went into a state of depression. I remember going to the practice room, taking scores out of my bag, placing them on the piano, closing the lid, resting head on my arm, and crying on my own shoulder. I would cry for hours, then pack up and leave, never touching a single key of the piano. I ended up having to reschedule my final degree recital, which in turn (through a string of incidents that would take too much space to describe), led me to an unexpected move back to the United States…

Clouds can make you question the existence of the sun.

…but clouds can also give you focus: clouds can give you a reason to not lay in the sun. When I moved back to the United States, I was left without a job, without a place to live, and without work. I was still paying rent for an apartment overseas that I was not living in, and I was struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship. I was deeply saddened by the circumstances. But, I met this dark time with fearless abandon, playing as many concerts as possible, and working tirelessly to rebuild my career in a new country. My own disenfranchisement fueled my desire to succeed.

Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.

Rain (Tears)

A cloud in the sky can lead to rain. But tears are not just a singular cause-effect; rather, it is the grand accumulation of weight that becomes simply too heavy for a cloud to hold.

I remember the first time I heard my mother sing. She sang “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. I played the chords at the piano while she sang and played the melody with her right hand next to me. I was giving her a piano lesson, and I didn’t specifically ask her to sing, she just did it on her own. My mother brought me to tears because it was a rare joy to hear her shy, untrained voice sing without the least sense of self-consciousness. The song will never again be the same to me.

Rain is a fundamental process to the recycling of the vital element of water. Although rain is the losing of something, we need it to live.

Lightning (Shock)


Image: Elijah Hiett

Often before rain is the initial shock of lightning. The electricity of a storm is stunning—when it strikes, we are unable to do anything to counter its intensity. We can’t run towards, nor away, from lightning. Shock is the arrestation of movement, it is a primal reaction to first contact with something mysterious, powerful, and possibly dangerous.

The memory of a performance of a piece I wrote, called Accord, affected me deeply. At the first massive, crashing tone cluster that interrupts the sound of a tuning violin, I witnessed a gut reaction from an audience member in the front row. The listener’s arms, shoulders, and legs seized up, and the head pulled back as the neck tightened. The hands shot up reflexively towards the ears to cover them…

I immediately felt guilt and remorse. I was responsible for this lightning strike. I wrote this gesture in hopes that it would grab people’s attention—and I succeeded—but at what cost? As an emerging composer, I had often strived to grab attention as quickly as possible, and at any cost. It is the treasure hunt for the loudest, fastest, most terrific possible sound. (Or similarly, the softest, slowest one.)

But in this treasure hunt for the most shocking sound, I inadvertently flipped a sonic middle finger to the audience member. Did this terrifying and anxiety-inducing sound make this person into a fan of my music, or new music in general? It is doubtful.

Shock is a powerful element, and it should be used wisely and cautiously.

Shock is a powerful element, and it should be used wisely and cautiously. After seeing what my music had done to someone, I vowed to strive to genuinely affect listeners for the better, rather than to use shock as a ploy to garner attention at a most hollow, visceral level.

Storm (Anger)


Image: Michal Mancewicz

If lightning is the initial shock of potentially dangerous force, then the storm is the realization of that force. The storm is violent and intimidating. The storm is rain in excess.

Anger is a fleeting sensation that can be understood and referenced, but not used as a building block.

But there is little for me to say about storms in and of themselves: I have never used anger as a motivator in listening to or playing music. I personally find within me very little creativity that is fueled by anger. For me, anger is not a profound and sustaining enough emotion to fulfill me expressively as an artist. It is a fleeting sensation that can be understood and referenced, but not used as a building block. Anger is real, but for me, it must ultimately lead to something proud, hopeful, and ecstatic. This is the art I seek. The glorious arrival at “The Great Gate of Kiev” after “Baba Yaga” in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The “Cheerful and Thankful Feelings After the Storm” in the final movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The way Nina Simone completes the second half of the song “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life.” Anger should not go unacknowledged, but it should also be overcome with something more hopeful, peaceful, and productive.

Tornado (Disorientation)

A tornado takes the land and blows it about. A tornado is disorienting, but it can also create bliss.

I, in fact, take pleasure when I am unable to identify the key center, the meter, or the exact instrumentation of a piece of music: Since my career in music relies upon my ability to identify the aspects of music as quickly and efficiently as possible, the moments where I simply do not know give me great joy.

On one occasion, I saw this same joy in a six-year-old student who was having trouble identifying the note A on the keyboard. The student, whom I will call Lance, started on C and counted out loud up the C major scale. “C, D, E, F, G…” And when Lance reached G, he would accidentally go on to “H” and then “I” and then “J.” I stopped him just before the note E became an “L” and told him that the notes on the keyboard reset at “G,” that the next note after “G” is “A.” Perhaps I explained it poorly the first time, because when Lance tried again, he made the same exact mistake, and again, I corrected him. I wanted to let him try as many times as he needed to get it right, but Lance would get it wrong over and over again, always going from “G” to “H” to “I” to “J.” After about 15 minutes of this, I became nervous that Lance would become frustrated with his failures. But he did not. Instead, he grew happier with each try. There was something comforting to his realizing that there were such mysteries that enchant the keyboard of the piano, that after “G” some “magical riddle” occurs, leaving him in a state of wonder. Eventually, I’m sure Lance will learn to not be disoriented by the challenge of moving from “G” back to “A.” And when he does, I hope he finds a new mystery from which to achieve bliss.

Clear Skies (Innocent Love)


Image: Crawford Ifland

I know now that the color blue in the sky is a refraction of the sun’s rays on the dust in our atmosphere. A clear day is really not clear at all—it never was. But I still have the memory of thinking how open and free the world is on a clear day.

The version of Western music that I learned, both academically and casually, was rooted in the glorification of great men, and in my youth, I fell to this template’s allure. I idolized the music of Great Men, and truly, with all my heart, believed they were better-than-human: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Wagner, Prokofiev, Morton Feldman. But, upon closer examination, Bach sounded like a neglectful husband, Mozart seemed like a dysfunctional man-child, Chopin seemed like a caustic friend; Schumann seemed mentally ill, Wagner seemed anti-semitic, and Prokofiev seemed unnecessarily mean-spirited. And, based on some recent allegations, Morton Feldman seemed to be a sexual predator. Evidence shows that all of them were people, for better or worse.

While not a note of their music has changed, the innocent love I once had for these brilliant musical minds can never be regained. My personal overcast—clouds saturated with the knowledge and wisdom of life—have now permanently shrouded the music, re-painting the images of these fallen heroes into a murkier, more realistic, shade of humanity. It is sobering to realize the skies are no longer clear, and that they perhaps never were.

Certainly, Lance can be a lesson to us: While knowledge is power, there is still great bliss in not knowing. Ignorant, innocent love is indeed powerful. But ignorance and innocence are meant to be lost. My perspective on my innocent love is so different from the emotion as I remember it. Now, my past is viewed with the special lens a more informed perspective affords. But my pure feelings of love in the past were important, and they still travel with me.

Innocent love is a type of love you can only have once, and I am thankful for the formative memories it gave me.

The Sun (Sustaining Love)

I love the sun. The warmth of the sun is essential, and we must always acknowledge this. No matter the weather, we rely on the warmth of the sun to survive. The sun is a sustaining love.

Contemporary music sustains me in a different way: primarily, it fulfills my personal need for adventure.

My sustaining loves in music are only a handful of composers: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, Schumann, and just individual pieces of Schubert, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and a few others. Contemporary music sustains me in a different way: primarily, it fulfills my personal need for adventure.

As I grow out of innocent love, I am starting to really see the true loves for who they are. Some innocent loves are not sustainable—a bright street light is no star. But, many of the musical loves that sustain me now were once innocent loves too: Not all innocent love is ignorant.

The sun is the mightiest source of inspiration. No matter the weather, we can always say, “Thank goodness for the sun.” And thank goodness for emotions. And thank goodness for music.

Rain (Tears) continued

rain with doll

Image: Rhendi Rukmana

Briefly revisiting the rain, I would like to highlight some of the musical moments in my life that have brought me to tears—a necessary physical overload of emotion.

There are so many more that have faded with time. But, at least the ones I remember can be recorded. There is a beautiful, sustaining love that runs through all of these memories—perhaps this is why I remember them, and perhaps this is why they made me cry.

  • The first time I ever heard an orchestra live: An open rehearsal of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier
  • The funeral service for my childhood friend, Shumie, who committed suicide. I do remember music, but I don’t remember what it was.
  • I was taking a piano lesson with my teacher in grad school, and had just broken up with my significant other.
  • I was in a practice room, playing a section of Jerome Kitzke’s Sunflower Sutra. It was the section titled “Canticle for Mary.”
  • After finishing the first run-through of my debut album, Rounded Binary.
  • The first time I heard my mother sing, singing “Across the Universe” by The Beatles.
  • Later, in private, after playing for my fiancee’s mother who was dying of cancer. We played and sang “Let It Be” by The Beatles.

…I have just said the unspeakable. I have shared my deepest emotions with a general public. Does this make you uncomfortable? Why? Are we, as a culture of humans, unable to plainly and unapologetically articulate our emotions with one another? Within the arts, the domain charged with expressing the beauty in humanity, why is this such a challenge? What is this barrier, and why is it there?


still lake

Image: Dmitry Ermakov

How and why were the sun and the stars in the sky created; how and why are emotions and music what they are? One cannot answer this without asking a more fundamental question about the origin and purpose of human existence. According to Aristotle, “the soul” is “one of the hardest things to gain any conviction about.”[7] Charles Darwin felt that in studying human expression, “close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.”[8] To Oscar Wilde, “The final mystery is oneself.”[9] The list of brilliant people who were baffled by their own self is long…

The further I discuss this, the more I am baffled by the mystery of emotion, and by humanity itself. There are really no words: while experientially known, these subjects are uniquely ungraspable through discourse. So then, we must be content with beauty that is imprecise—the beauty of weather, the beauty of emotion, and the beauty of the whole of humanity—and humbly appreciate that music can in some ways express it.

1. The Emotions, by Robert Plutchik.

2. Confessions, by Saint Augustine.

3. The World in Six Songs, by Daniel Levitin.

4. In Empty Words, John Cage writes, “Many composers no longer make musical structures.  Instead they set processes going.  A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.  In the case of a table, the beginning and end of the whole and each of its parts are known.  In the case of weather, though we notice changes in it, we have no clear knowledge of its beginning or ending.  At a given moment, we are where we are.  The now moment.”

5. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed writes, “Emotions don’t make the world go round. But they do in some sense go round.”

6. The Emotions.

7. In De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle writes, “In general, and in all ways, it is one of the hardest of things to gain any conviction about the soul.”

8. In The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin writes, “The study of Expression is difficult […] When we witness any deep emotion, our sympathy is so strongly excited, that close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.”

9. De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde.

On Empathy

The crimes and misdemeanors language perpetrates against music are many and various, but one offense is more insidious than most, simply for being so insignificant. It’s a preposition. In English, invariably, we listen to a piece of music. Never with a piece of music.

That little rut of syntax conceals a speed bump on what seemingly should be a musical express lane: the generation of empathy. Empathy is something music can and ought to steadily, even effortlessly create. Performing music, particularly in any sort of ensemble, large or small, exercises the muscles of empathy like no other. But even just listening to it should give empathy a boost, one would think. Name another art form that so regularly launches even its most historically, culturally, and ethnologically distant artifacts into newly immediate vitality, again and again.

Empathy is, perhaps, the most plausible of music’s utopian promises. The universality of musical communication dissolves the barriers of isolated viewpoints. We can gain direct access to perspectives and emotions far from our own experience. Music expands our ability to empathize, to sympathize, to humanize. It’s a great story. It’s a story I’ve told enough times, certainly. And, at those times—now, for instance—when empathy seems to be a dwindlingly scarce societal resource, it’s a story we like to tell with greater insistence, and confidence, and hope.

But what if it’s just that—a story? From another angle: what if there’s no way to listen to a piece of music and with a piece of music at the same time?

For the better part of a century, psychologists and similarly inclined scholars have made a particular distinction between empathy and emotional contagion. The former is defined in the usual way: having the experience of another person’s perception, perspective, emotional reaction. The latter is a little different: experiencing an emotional response simply because everyone around you is experiencing the same emotion. It’s an illusion of empathy, one conjured completely out of one’s own emotional memories.

The distinction is important in the study of musical perception. Here’s a recent explanation of the difference, by scholar Felicity Laurence:

It seems possible that when accounting for feelings of unity arising during shared musical experience, we may be confusing the impression of actually understanding and even feeling sympathetic towards one’s fellow “musickers” with what is in fact the experience of an emotional “wave.” In doing so, we are arguably conflating this “contagious” experience with the distinct and separate phenomenon of empathy. Emotional contagion is not inherently negative, and may indeed lead to, or accompany, empathic response. However, people engaged in musicking may seek specifically to engender, and then celebrate emotional contagion in order to reduce individual sovereignty and dissolve interpersonal boundaries. Even in an apparently benign concert performance, for example, we may be able to discern such manipulative behavior on the part of the performers and the corresponding mass response of their audience.

This description, at least, maintains the optimistic possibility (“may indeed”) that emotional contagion can pull the listener in the direction of true empathy. But others have not been so sure.

flamingo reflection

Photo by Pablo Garcia Saldana

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, for instance, was a skeptic. And he came to doubt because of a now-familiar controversy—the shock of the new. In the early part of the 20th century, Ortega was wrestling with a problem: how to define modern music vis-à-vis the music of previous eras. “The problem was strictly aesthetic,” Ortega wrote, “yet I found the shortest road towards its solution started from a simple sociological phenomenon: the unpopularity of modern music.” Unlike music of the Romantic era, modern music had not met with wide popularity. And the reason for that was profound and inherent: “It is not a matter of the majority of the public not liking the new work and the minority liking it,” Ortega went on. “What happens is that the majority, the mass of the people, does not understand it.” After a century of Romanticism’s mass appeal, modernism was a rude awakening:

If the new art is not intelligible to everybody, this implies that its resources are not those generically human. It is not an art for men in general, but for a very particular class of men, who may not be of more worth than the others, but who are apparently distinct.

Hence the title of the essay: “La deshumanización del arte,” the dehumanization of art. And, like Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?” (which, in some respects, Ortega anticipated by thirty years), Ortega isn’t out to demonize that dehumanization. It is what it is. And a lot of what it is has to do with how art—and music specifically—does and doesn’t engender empathy.

Romanticism, to Ortega, was popular because “people like a work of art that succeeds in involving them in the human destinies it propounds.” In the case of music, the destiny propounded was that of the composer: “Art was more or less confession.” Wagner, the adulterer, writes Tristan und Isolde, an opera about adultery, “and leaves us with no other remedy, if we wish to enjoy his work, than to become vaguely adulterous for a couple of hours.”

This seems like an empathetic response. But, upon closer examination, the music of Beethoven and Wagner is “melodrama,” and our response to it just “a contagion of feelings”:

What has the beauty of music to do with the melting mood it may engender in me? Instead of delighting in the artist’s work, we delight in our own emotions; the work has merely been the cause, the alcohol, of our pleasure… they move us to a sentimental participation which prevents our contemplating them objectively.

“[T]he perception of living reality and the perception of artistic form are, in principle, incompatible since they require a different adjustment of our vision,” Ortega insists. “An art that tries to make us see both ways at once will be a cross-eyed art.” The clarity of empathy is hopelessly blurred by reflexive emotional response: “It is no good confusing the effect of tickling with the experience of gladness.”

Ortega’s analysis is subjective, speculative criticism, but some of the ideas he turns over—especially regarding genre and empathy—have, however tentatively, been put to scientific test. In one provocative study, Shannon Clark and S. Giac Giacomantonio compared that match between subjects in late adolescence and early adulthood—across the age boundary when the psychological development of empathy is thought to settle into a mature level. Clark and Giacomantonio quizzed their subjects as to their listening preferences, classifying them according to a Musical Preference Factor Scale (MPFS) developed by Peter J. Rentfrow and Samuel D. Gosling:

Factor 1, “reflective & complex” (e.g., classical, jazz, folk, blues)

Factor 2, “intense & rebellious” (e.g., rock, alternative, heavy metal)

Factor 3, “upbeat & conventional” (e.g., country, pop, soundtracks, religious)

Factor 4, “energetic & rhythmic” (e.g., rap, soul, dance, electronica)

The result?

[I]t was shown that music genres encompassed by MPF-1 and MPF-2 are stronger in their associations with empathy than are those encompassed by MPF-3 and MPF-4. In fact, MPF-3 was negatively associated with empathy, indicating that those who have greater preferences for these genres may be lower in empathic concern. Additionally, MPF-4 was shown to have very little influence on empathy, positively or negatively, indicating that these genres of music contain little to no emotive messaging influencing empathic concern[.]

What’s more, the study hinted that “music preferences are more relevantly associated with cognitive aspects of development than affective ones.” In other words, the path to increased empathy is through thinking, not feeling. To be sure, the framework fairly smacks of unexamined stereotypes (I can think of plenty of rap music that is “reflective & complex,” and plenty of classical music that is “upbeat & conventional”). To any even slightly versatile musician, the MPFS categories (even in expanded form) can feel excessively, well, categorical. And, as with all studies of music and empathy so far, the study is far more suggestive than conclusive—the sample size is small, the data noisy. But squint your eyes, and you can just make out Ortega’s line between “objective” and “sentimental” music.

Still, Ortega’s business was philosophy, not psychology. His conception of the empathy-emotional contagion distinction was phenomenological, echoing ideas of empathy and intersubjectivity explored by Edmund Husserl and, especially, Husserl’s student Edith Stein, a fascinating thinker whose life was cut short at Auschwitz. (The philosophical consideration of empathy goes back to the Enlightenment, but it was Stein’s thesis, written at the absolute tail end of the Romantic era, that most influentially distinguished between empathy and emotional contagion.) And Ortega, it should be noted, had an ulterior motive. At the core of his analysis is his mistrust of utility. His famous Decartes-like statement of individual existence—“Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia,” I am I and my circumstances—posits existence as a contest between the self and the decisions into which the self is pushed by those circumstances. On some level, Ortega regards Romanticism as more circumstantial, more useful, than he might prefer. (Ortega’s anti-utilitarianism most shows its seams when stretched. In Ortega’s Meditations on Hunting, for example, he ends up elevating the “exemplary moral spirit” of hunting for sport over hunting for food.)

But how do you measure the utility of music, anyway? Earlier this year, I moderated a discussion panel for one of the concerts in a two-season survey of Anton Webern’s complete music, mounted by Trinity Wall Street in New York City. For a prompt, I offered a quotation from the rather contentious 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime” by the rather notorious Viennese architect Adolf Loos:

The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.

The target of Loos’s ire was Art Nouveau and its penchant for putting decadent, decorative swirls on everything from wallpaper and furniture to ashtrays and breadboxes. But Loos was Webern’s contemporary; and it feels like this quote should have something to do with Webern’s famously stripped-down rhetoric. But what, exactly, that connection is, I’m not sure.

What was it that, perhaps, Webern considered utilitarian about music, and that previous generations had excessively ornamented? Was it the utility of musical form, and how it had been ever-more-grandly ornamented with tonal harmony? Webern’s works are formal—often scrupulously so—but without the tonal indicators of form, without the harmonic mile markers and exit signs everyone had grown accustomed to over the past three centuries. At the very least, this answer hints at how Webern’s music can be so wildly expressive while, compared to tonal music, doing so little. A piece of music isn’t expressive because it adheres to sonata form, say; sonata form is useful because it gives the nebulous quality of musical expression something to which to adhere.

But, with Ortega’s essay swimming in my head, here’s another idea. Maybe the utility of music is its communication—not what it communicates, which nobody can ever agree on, anyway, but just that it communicates with such power and directness. And the ornament? Emotional contagion.

I might like this answer even better, because it dissolves so many of the paradoxes of Webern’s reception—why it’s judged cool and inscrutable, when it’s anything but; why it’s judged austere and meager, when it’s anything but; why it’s judged impersonal and inhuman, when it’s anything but. Maybe the real resistance to Webern’s music (and a lot that followed) is that, in and of itself, it refuses to let the audience off the hook. To engage with it is to experience empathy without the cushion of emotional contagion. Real empathy, the experience of a world-view other than yours, is a far different and far less comfortable thing than a safe memory of your own emotional experience.

mirror reflection

Photo by Ali Syaaban

The whole landscape of this discussion is, admittedly, esoteric. Webern’s music is extreme. Ortega’s endpoint is a bit extreme. Academic studies of music and empathy, by nature, inhabit at least somewhat abstract spaces. (A number of investigations, for instance, have studied responses to music by autistic listeners in order to make observable effects more readily obvious.) Most of us—composers, performers, listeners—don’t live at these kind of extremes. We roam across Rentfrow and Gosling’s Music Preference Factors, mixing and matching, picking and choosing, sometimes amplifying a mood, sometimes challenging it, sometimes throwing different approaches into the blender just to see what happens. We all, at least some of the time, like to be transported into a new perspective; at the same time, we like to be guided to that place with a sense of being met halfway.

The question is whether the distance is the only thing being halved. The implication of Ortega, and Webern, and the tentative attempts to quantify such things is that, maybe, empathy and emotional contagion, rather than working hand-in-hand, as we might assume, are instead in a mutually exclusive tug-of-war. It is both a profoundly counter-intuitive idea and one that causes a surprising amount of music history to fall into logical place. And I find that just considering the idea reduces a lot of the foundation of how I think about music to sand. How would that change how we make music? What would that music sound like? How would we perform it?

Here’s another question: would we even be able to hear it?

In the introduction to the second, 1966 edition of his study Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan took the opportunity to try and clarify a tricky point: how, when a medium is superseded, the old medium becomes the “content” of the new. For example, “the ‘content’ of TV is the movie. TV is environmental and imperceptible, like all environments. We are aware only of the ‘content’ or the old environment.” Our entire historical relation to the world around us is simply an ongoing two-step between content and media:

Each new technology creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and degrading. Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form.

The argument that atonal modernism “chased away” the audience for classical music/concert music/art music (choose your favorite flawed terminology) is practically a cliché at this point. But the bigger shift was technological. At the same time as the advent of atonality, our relationship with music was undergoing the greatest sea change in history: live performances were displaced by recorded, broadcast, or otherwise electrically and electronically mediated performances. And one can interpret McLuhan’s framework so that the primary feature of Romantic music—its flair for creating the illusion of startlingly immediate emotions—became the “content” of music once its dominant mode of consumption became electronically mediated. In other words, the phonograph, the radio, the recording studio made the emotional contagion of music the end, not the means. Considering McLuhan’s framework leads us to another counter-intuitive possibility: that, for a hundred years, the intended meaning of any piece of music has been lost in translation, its technological mediation filtering out everything but the emotional contagion.

It’s an esoteric interpretation. But it would explain a lot. It would explain why one of music history’s most zealous projects, the post-World War II determination to dismantle the legacy of Romanticism, foundered so completely. It would explain why some of the most thrilling and fascinating music of the past one hundred years, music that still can generate an electric response in the concert hall, found no traction on record or radio. And, more to the point, it would go a long way toward explaining why two generations and counting of conscious efforts to “reconnect” with audiences, of composers and performers producing music conceived in tonality and dedicated to the proposition that accessibility and clarity are fundamental to musical practice, have failed to forestall yet another political and historical moment in which our capacity for empathy has been ruthlessly and thoroughly crowded out by emotional contagion. But the notion also implies a dilemma: the music best able to engineer empathy might be that which is the hardest sell to a listener—because it is the most at odds with the way we have come to listen to music.

Like most dilemmas, it’s older than we think. The ancient Greeks were already worrying about it, forever theorizing how to channel music’s capacity for moral improvement, forever peppering those theories with observations that so much of the music that surrounded them eschewed morality for an easy emotional response. Aristotle, like so many after him, tried to square the circle with crude class distinctions, contrasting “the vulgar class composed of mechanics and laborers and other such persons” with “freemen and educated people,” resigned to the necessity of appealing to the former with “active and passionate” harmonies—since “people of each sort receive pleasure from what is naturally suited to them”—but insisting that, for education, “the ethical class of melodies and of harmonies must be employed.” (Not incidentally, this discussion takes place in the eighth and final book of Aristotle’s Politics.) But somehow I think that even Aristotle’s educated people were just as susceptible to emotional contagion as his mechanicals.

It’s not a class trait, or a national trait, or an aesthetic trait; it’s a human one. Emotion is easy; empathy is hard. We prefer listening to over listening with, a preference reinforced, perhaps, by the inescapable electronic web we’ve woven around ourselves. We keep believing that the one can lead to the other. But is that, in actuality, anything more than a feeling?

Candy Floss and Merry-Go-Rounds: Female Composers, Gendered Language, and Emotion

When I was first starting out as a composer, a composition teacher offered me some bracing words of caution: “Sarah, you’ll have a difficult path. Your music is direct, lyrical, expressive. When a man writes like that, it’s brave and admirable; it’s going against type. But when a woman writes like that, it can be seen as sentimental and indulgent. Stay strong; don’t let it deter you.” At the time, I didn’t believe him. It was the late 1990s, after all—third-wave feminism, the riot grrrl movement, and queer theory were informing much of the broader arts and cultural conversation. Sure, classical music could be a bit slow to evolve, but times had long since changed there, too—right?

In 2017, as most people in our field are well aware, classical music’s “woman problem” lingers. This year’s wonderfully surprising Pulitzer Prize for Music coup notwithstanding (in which not only the winner but the two finalists were female), recent statistics confirm that gender bias continues to plague concert programming, conducting/performance, and academia. It’s a circular problem: classical music is a field strongly defined by role models and mentor relationships, and with few broadly visible women at the top, only so many young women feel compelled to enter and ascend the ranks. And due to concerns about optics and impropriety, the close mentoring of female students by male teachers can be fraught and complicated. But grim statistics and interpersonal dynamics aren’t the only factors that reinforce this imbalance: it’s also the subtle currents of problematic gender messaging—in academia, the media, and the culture at large—that can toxify the soil in which young female musicians hope to grow their careers.

The subtle currents of problematic gender messaging—in academia, the media, and the culture at large—can toxify the soil in which young female musicians hope to grow their careers.

I’ve noticed these currents time and again since my teacher first drew my attention to them. But now that I’m getting older and care not just about my own path but also that of the younger women coming up behind me, they trouble me more.

I receive a discouraging number of emails from young female composers thanking me for my “courage” and “bravery” in writing music that is emotionally direct. Courage! Bravery! They use these words because the implicit mistrust of emotion and affect in art is the aesthetic world we continue to live in, well beyond the turn of the 21st century. In a career where the deck is stacked against them before they write a single note, young female composers are eager to prove that they are every bit as serious and capable as men. Some feel pressure to compromise their natural artistic instincts to fit within a paradigm that can seem intractable and inhospitable. I know where these women are coming from.

For my graduate music studies, I attended the Yale School of Music, NYU, Aspen Music Festival, June in Buffalo, and various conferences and masterclasses. At the time, each one of these experiences featured male-only composition faculty, and very few—if any—female students. (My first year at Yale, I was the only woman in the department.) For the most part, my instructors in these institutions were fair, respectful, and treated me like one of the guys, in some cases becoming lifelong friends and mentors. A few did not. In addition to garden-variety sexist jokes and innuendo, there were comments my male peers didn’t receive, like: “I hope you don’t cry easily” and “you probably don’t want to mess with electronics.” There were inappropriate inquiries into my personal life and unsought counsel on marriage and children. There was the suggestion that I take harder courses than my male peers to “prove myself” and the explicit warning that potential future male composition students would not take me seriously because I was a woman; at one point I was denied the opportunity to teach a student who was known to be very religious. (“As a woman he will probably think you are the devil, so we’ll give him a guy, okay?”) There was the horrifying time a teacher—upon learning that I was engaged to a composer with whom I had never studied—sardonically told me that I should have “also dated” a former composition teacher of mine because “perhaps then you would have gotten more out of your lessons with him.” I never got past this and remained uncomfortable and largely silent in his presence—a problem as his role was pedagogically and socially central to the program and he wielded significant influence beyond the academy. There was a teacher’s semester-long dodging of orchestration lessons that was eventually explained with: “Oh Sarah, you’re going to get married and have kids. Do we really need to bother with this?” (Said with a benevolent smile and pat on the shoulder, as though all I really wanted was someone to release me from this ill-conceived charade in which I feigned interest in composing until I could find a husband.) And there was one teacher’s private confession—during our first lesson—that he’d only recently convinced himself that women were “physiologically capable” of writing music. I thought about this during every lesson with him thereafter, wondering whether he was “physiologically capable” of taking me seriously.

There was one teacher’s private confession—during our first lesson—that he’d only recently convinced himself that women were “physiologically capable” of writing music.

Having attended progressive Wesleyan University as an undergraduate and spent the years between college and grad school in New York, living with friends who were politically-minded artists, writers, and activists, the social culture of the composition scene was quite shocking to me. In many ways it felt like stepping back in time; in addition to a conspicuous paucity of women or people of color, social gatherings tended to feature anachronistic gender dynamics and body language. It was hard not to notice the way that so many senior men in the field—composers, conductors, presenters—would offer distracted, half-hearted handshakes upon introduction while looking over my shoulder for the more powerful men in the room or interrupting me to insert a quip into a neighboring conversation. In those moments I couldn’t help but think of my elementary school music room, where the walls were lined with laminated photographs of all the great classical composers—dozens of men, not a single woman among them. My male peers would experience some of these social slights, too, but could chalk them up to a temporary merit-and-station-based hurdle, rather than a gender-based one.

Early on, I discovered that there were aspects of the mentoring process with our male teachers that female students couldn’t fully access or participate in—one-on-one beers after a lesson, weekend gardening/composition lessons, tennis/composition lessons, invitations to visit at a teacher’s summer home—due, presumably, to fraught gender dynamics or fear of misperceived intent. I’d hear about a young male composer who’d been taken under wing by a famous older male composer, brought along to a festival in Japan or high-profile performance in Europe where he was “introduced” to the composerly clique. (Certainly this kind of thing happened with an inappropriate agenda at times, too.) Even if a senior male composer wanted to champion a young female composer in this way, it was hard to imagine how he would pull it off. One elder statesman composer reached out to me after hearing my work at a festival; he praised my counterpoint and invited me to dinner with him and his wife. He was a model of professionalism, nowhere near inappropriate, but some male peers felt the need to caution me nonetheless: “I heard he helps female composers. Who knows what’s going on there.” While there was no shortage of mixed-group socializing with our teachers, it was the avuncular one-on-one bonding that my male peers tended to credit for significant advances in their careers. (“You should get _____ to take you mushroom-picking like he did with me last week; he sent my music to _____ yesterday!” they would say excitedly, in the way young composers share trade secrets with one another. “Oh wait…I guess that would be weird.”)

girl and composer

This young girl inched closer and closer to composer Sarah Kirkland Snider until finally she was sitting with her and examining the score. Maybe a future composer?
Photo by Shara Nova

I thought that if I worked harder to emulate my male peers in certain ways (comportment, humor), and rival or exceed them in others (knowledge, craft, seriousness), I could somehow defuse and shift the imbalance of this reality. Sometimes it felt like my strategy was working and I’d think maybe, for a moment, my gender had disappeared—which made it all the more frustrating when certain teachers felt the continual need to bring it up, not solely in conversations about career strategy but in the music lessons themselves. Several teachers called my music “feminine,” a word whose meaning varied by context and instructor. One of these teachers raised this point as a matter of genuine, solemn care and concern, sharing with me his belief that the handful of 20th-century female composers who had found success had done so because they wrote “masculine” music. The way I set a Gertrude Stein text, he said, was overly brooding, emotional—in short, too feminized. “Ruth Crawford Seeger, Sofia Gubaidulina, Joan Tower, Tania León, Augusta Read Thomas…it’s pretty masculine music,” he told me. I asked what he meant by “masculine,” and what he thought I should take from his observation. “I don’t know,” he replied, “I’m not saying it’s fair or right. I just think you might want to think about it. The women who’ve busted down the doors aren’t necessarily the ones who would have been successful at any other point in history. They’re the ones whose vision and skill best matched the fashion of their time, and the 20th century has been a very macho-intellectual time.”

Like all of my peers—and as with any fledgling composer, writer, or artist—my work received unsparing critique in group seminars. The aesthetic values varied by institution, but in general, systems, complexity, and obfuscation ruled the day. My music, by contrast, tended to be clear and discernible: my interests were melody and narrative. I greatly appreciated the criticisms and challenges posed to me by my teachers and peers; they resulted in lively aesthetic debates, pushed and broadened me as an artist, and in many ways strengthened my resolve. What troubled me were the times when the critique turned from the technical to a vague indictment of the emotional, with problematically deployed language (“emotional, feminine, wounded, victimized, vulnerable, precious”) or effeminate gesticulations. One teacher, critiquing an orchestra piece of mine, leaped from side to side in front of the (all male but me) class, assuming mock-Victorian pearl-clutching-and-fainting poses to pantomime his perception of the music’s interior monologue as it moved from phrase to phrase: “Oh! I’m so sad! But, but now…now I’m…happy! But wait, now—now—I’m… sad again. Oh boohoohoohoo!”

I cannot argue that the 20th-century dichotomous thinking about contemporary music—serious/cerebral/systems-based/complex/masculine vs. less serious/emotional/intuitive/simple/feminine—was necessarily fed to me disproportionately on account of my gender. My male peers struggled with these issues, too. But in recognizing the extent to which my sex preceded me as a composer, I envied the few female composers I knew whose interests naturally lay in writing gestural, modernist music, where expressivity was more about wind multiphonics and string bow pressure than traditional notions of line and syntax. I believed these women were more likely to be taken seriously by the male composers evaluating our work, even if those men didn’t necessarily write that way themselves. I struggled to make my music less clear and more complex, instantly mistrusting any idea I heard rather than derived from a system. I would catch myself excited about a melodic idea and then get depressed that I was excited. There were long, painful stretches in which I barely wrote—until, finally, I accepted that it wasn’t simply that I wasn’t very good at writing that way, it was that I didn’t want to.

I left graduate school pretty deeply ill at ease with the degree to which new music seemed to be an old white boys’ club, built in part on values and practices I couldn’t embrace or endorse. There was a period of time after graduation in which I found it painful even to listen to classical music—of any era. Hundreds of years of composers I grew up loving—music that had always been my home, a sanctuary—suddenly now just seemed like a club of men that never would have let me in, never would have seen my personhood as equivalent to theirs, even if they’d been alive today. It was a strange feeling of betrayal. But I am, by nature, a tenacious and quietly rebellious person. When someone tells me I can’t do something, my inclination is to push on, and that much harder than before. Ultimately, rather than flee the castle, I decided I wanted to raze the ramparts, bridge the moats, and make new music a more inclusive and broad-minded institution. I found some like-minded comrades, and we still work together towards these goals at New Amsterdam Records. But a lot of people don’t have that perverse inclination to swim upstream. I know too many female composers who’ve dropped out at various stages of their career because they were repulsed or alienated by the culture of our field. While I respect that choice, I mourn it, too.

I know too many female composers who’ve dropped out at various stages of their career because they were repulsed or alienated by the culture of our field.

I recently found myself thinking about all of this again, brought vividly back to my days as a young female composer struggling to feel I was being taken seriously. In a recent New York Times review of the Kennedy Center’s SHIFT Festival in Washington, D.C., regarding a performance by the North Carolina Symphony, critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote the following about my music: “But the 13-song cycle Unremembered by Ms. Snider with Mr. Stith joined by the vocalists Shara Nova and Padma Newsome, was an overlong exercise in candy-floss-Gothic angst. Its setting of dark poems by Nathaniel Bellows — among them, visions of an abandoned slaughterhouse, a martyred swan and a copse of trees haunted by the memory of a suicide — proceed to the accompaniment of spare orchestral gestures, repeated as in a trance. Listening to Unremembered alongside the (lamentably much shorter) songs by Ms. Shaw highlighted the difference between sincerity and being overearnest.”

Ouch. One never likes to get a bad review, but when you put your music out there enough, it happens, and you learn to live with it. You tell yourself that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to write music that’s a little bit polarizing—maybe it’s even a good thing?—and you remind yourself to feel grateful that your work is being acknowledged at all. You shake it off and move on. In this case, however, the critique really got under my skin, and I wasn’t sure why. So I sat down to write these words and try to puzzle it out.

In her critique of Unremembered, da Fonseca-Wollheim uses the phrase “candy floss,” a British-ism for cotton candy—pink, fluffy, spun sugar. If you Google Image Search the words “candy floss,” you find pictures of pink fluff, girls eating pink fluff, and girls with pink wigs eating pink fluff. The imagery is not just female, but young: pink cartoon animals, unicorns, butterflies, lipstick/makeup, lace underwear/lingerie, and frilly/girly fonts. Perhaps in choosing this phrase, da Fonseca-Wollheim did not mean for any “girly” connotation to factor as strongly as the “fluffy/insubstantial” aspect, but it’s hard for me to imagine her using “candy floss” to criticize work by a male composer, given the added tax of emasculation it would potentially levy. Regardless, what’s troubling here isn’t just the use of a gendered dig to criticize work by a female composer. Equally if not more problematic is the use of a gendered dig to criticize emotion, a concept laden with more gender baggage than perhaps any other in the art form. If “candy floss” had been used to criticize something technical like orchestration or harmony, it would have been problematic in the ways that any gendered word usage is problematic. But in using a female-coded image to deride “overearnestness,” da Fonseca-Wollheim takes the damage a step further by conflating two modes of shaming: the emotional and the feminine. With this metaphor, she invites readers to infer that an excess of earnest emotional expression is a female crime.

eat candyfloss

So this was why I felt so awful. Here I was again, back on The Merry-Go-Round. You know the one—it’s fallen a bit into disrepair, but a lot of female composers have ridden on it. It’s painted Pepto-Bismol pink with melon-green polka dots, yellow diamonds, and lavender stars. Each horse has a lace-doily-ed, heart-shaped message above it, hand-painted with curlicues; the text on these messages is customized per rider. In my case, they say: Too Much Emotion—Girl; Pearl-Clutching-and-Fainting Pantomime—Girl; Overly-Feminized Text Settings—Girl; Brooding Like a Wounded Animal—Girl; Cotton Candy—Girl; Too Earnest—Girl. The central axis is adorned with a large frilly banner that remains the same for every rider: Girl—Weak, Unserious, Shameful. The janky carousel organ is accompanied by a warbly recording of Florence Foster Jenkins pertly sing-chanting: “Emotion is female, and females are emotional!” over and over and over… Ugh. Hadn’t they shut down this ride years ago for safety violations? Being on it again made me seasick.

Realizing that this merry-go-round is still open made me think we should talk about it.

The thing is, even though The Merry-Go-Round is out back behind the parking lot of Classical Music, you can still see and hear it clearly from the parlor room. So its messages impact all composers, regardless of gender. The implications for masculinity are every bit as toxic as those for women; the feminization of emotion, as a concept, is toxic to all human beings. (One of my strongest memories of the pearl-clutching-and-fainting-pantomime episode was the look of horror on my male peers’ faces as their brains registered the memo.) But The Merry-Go-Round’s messages are, of course, most burdensome to young female composers, who, in addition to institutional gender-based career hurdles, already have plenty of stubborn, misogynist cultural stereotypes about the nature of female emotion—and tacit proscriptions regarding its place in their work—to contend with.

Pink carousel

Whenever I hear the carousel tune waft in from afar, I think of the young women I mentioned earlier, the ones who write to tell me my work is “brave” or “courageous.” These women, usually in their late teens or early twenties, often come to composition through pop/rock/folk songwriting—music of direct emotional expression—because that’s where broadly visible female role models are. They write to me because their teachers recommended my song cycles Penelope and Unremembered, with their mix of stylistic influences, as a kind of new music gateway, a responsibility I greet by recommending wildly different styles of music by other female composers to them. These young women are usually aware of some of the challenges facing them but haven’t yet become hardened new music cynics.

I really don’t want these women to have to ride this rusty, old, broken-down merry-go-round. It’s painful and exhausting, and once you’re on, it’s hard to get off.

Be it in criticism, scholarship, or informal conversation, modes of classical music discourse that use gendered language, that conflate the emotional and the feminine, or that shame emotion in the place of analytic critique—bit by bit, they do real damage. Not just to these young women, but to the art form in general. Dismissing emotional immediacy as effeminate, lightweight, insubstantial—girlifying it—not only perpetuates tired, sexist clichés and messily condemns a long-embattled-and-recently-advanced aesthetic freedom in new music, it also has a chilling effect on new music’s ability to attract and retain young female composers. Language matters, words matter. It’s not about an occasional piece of rocky flotsam; it’s about a river of pernicious messaging that, over time, takes a toll.

Language matters, words matter. It’s not about an occasional piece of rocky flotsam; it’s about a river of pernicious messaging that, over time, takes a toll.

There are plenty of respectful ways to criticize music you find problematically emotive, if that is your grouse. All of them boil down to: be specific. Identify what’s actually bothering you. Does the music use too many bold emotional signifiers, e.g. sharp dynamic or harmonic contrasts? Do climactic moments seem unearned, or points of repose feel insufficient? Are melodic lines suffocatingly goal-directed or meandering? Is the phrasing long-winded, the textures too densely contrapuntal or unremittingly homophonic? Are motivic elements over-employed, or is there a dearth of memorable material? Is the concern one of aesthetics—are the influences not satisfyingly integrated? Should different styles/genres of music have different standards of emotional expressivity? And so on. A single concise, thought-provoking sentence will usually do. But to shame the emotion of a piece without substantive critique falsely implies that the work of “emotion” is not intellectual or intellectually interrogable. This kind of facile dismissal is not just lazy and old-fashioned, it’s insidiously repressive.

The making of any art requires courage, bravery, and risk—especially when it comes to putting it out into the world. But it’s ironic that in 21st-century classical music—a music that arguably invites excursive interior rumination, that aspires to probe deeply into the human condition—the pursuit of emotional honesty seems to require greater reserves of courage, bravery, and risk than the path of deliberately dispassionate restraint. For the health, longevity, and diversity of the art form, the way we think and talk about emotion and affect in 21st-century classical music must go deeper.

Essential to this is a proactive, vigilant rejection of the false dichotomy between the emotional/feminine and the intellectual/masculine in art, which is rarely articulated but nevertheless tends to linger just under the surface of many aesthetic arguments. A culture that colloquially refers to emotional awareness as “being in touch with one’s feminine side” will not be easily shifted in this regard. For this reason, public forums such as academia, journalism, and the media have a responsibility to take a conscious lead in flushing out the problematic currents of pre-supposition that travel subterraneously.

And in light of classical music’s glaring gender bias, care really should be taken to avoid gendered language. Non-gendered language is essential if your critical intent is to denounce or disparage, as sexist insults negatively impact not just the intended target, but all women (and differently but equally, men, non-binary, etc.) It’s true that what seems gendered to one person may not necessarily appear so to another, but all the situation requires is to ask oneself: Might this language be perceived as gendered? Would I feel equally confident using it with cis and trans women, men, and non-binary people? Should I conduct an informal poll to get a sense of how other people might see it? If there is room for debate, use different language. As we work to make the field of classical music more equitable and better reflect the diversity of the actual world we live in, demographically and aesthetically, we need to choose our words with care and consideration.

Most importantly, to young female composers: Do not be cowed by any shaming of the “emotional” or the “feminine” in your work—be it by critics, teachers, peers, men, women, whoever. Demand better. Tell your stories—loud, proud, bold, vulnerable, with the full gamut of your humanity. We’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for, and infinite facets of the female human experience to render.

Sarah Kirkland Snider

Sarah Kirkland Snider

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider’s works have been commissioned and performed by the San Francisco, Detroit, Indianapolis, and North Carolina Symphonies; the Residentie Orkest Den Haag, American Composers Orchestra, and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; percussionist Colin Currie, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, and vocalist Shara Nova; and The Knights, Ensemble Signal, yMusic, and Roomful of Teeth, among many others. Her music has been heard at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center, and at festivals including BAM Next Wave, Big Ears, Cross-linx, Aspen, Ecstatic, and Sundance. Her two orchestral song cycle records, Penelope (2010) and Unremembered (2015), graced Top Five lists on NPR, The Washington Post, The Nation, and Time Out New York. Upcoming projects include a mass for Trinity Wall Street Choir/NOVUS NY, a collaborative song cycle for A Far Cry, and an opera co-commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects and Opera Cabal. The winner of Detroit Symphony’s 2014 Elaine Lebenbom Award, Sarah’s music has also been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, New Music USA, Opera America, the Sorel Organization, and the Jerome Composers Commissioning Fund. A co-founder and co-artistic director of Brooklyn-based non-profit New Amsterdam Records, Sarah has an M.A. and A.D. from the Yale School of Music and a B.A. from Wesleyan University. Her music is published by G. Schirmer.

Joel Puckett: Real Life Inspiration

“Write what you know” is a commonly heard piece for advice for artists, but composer Joel Puckett has taken to heart a slightly different version of this sentiment, which could be stated, “Write what you live.” He finds inspiration for his compositions from events in his own life, and is refreshingly open about the motivations for his pieces, which are often highly emotional. For instance, his work The Shadow of Sirius, a concerto for flute, flute choir, and wind ensemble, is about losing a child through a miscarriage that his wife and he experienced, and he says the process of “getting those emotions out in the music” helped him heal.

“It has to be about the things I’m feeling,” Puckett says of his musical output. “The music I write is a time capsule of how I was feeling while I was working on it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I really can listen to these pieces and remember in some cases things like what I had for breakfast that day, a conversation my wife and I had… for me, the moments are right there on the surface.”

Those moments are most often created for large ensembles such as orchestra and symphonic wind ensemble, to which Puckett has always gravitated, generally preferring the “big crayon box” as a means to recreate the multi-layered textures he hears in his imagination. His background as a singer also informs his composing process, and recording his own vocal improvisations is the primary method he uses for generating musical material. During a three-year residency with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra he composed Concerto Duo for brothers Demarre and Anthony McGill, on flute and clarinet respectively, which featured all the ensembles under the CYSO umbrella (that’s six different orchestras) on one stage. But while he loves creating beautiful sustained textures and webs of counterpoint through the natural reverberation of large instrument groups, he is also highly attuned to the individuals within those groups, and the practicality of what he is asking them to play.

Not a whole lot of people talk about the physical demands that are being placed on the individual—not the instrument—the individual who happens to be putting the instrument to their face. If you’re not thinking about the person, then the parts are just paint by numbers/Connect Four…. It’s not real music until you’re thinking about the individual. And if you’re thinking about the individual, you’re thinking about the fact that they have to breathe; how much air does it take to play this note? How much velocity does it take to do this? Am I really taking care of their arm, or their physicality in this passage if they’ve been doing four-string cross string arpeggiation patterns for eight minutes before that? It’s not a question of can they do it. Of course they can do it. But is it going to put them in the best position possible to succeed?

Puckett’s sense of practicality also extends to the business side of his musical life. He says the question he is asked most often is how he gets so many performances—hundreds each year—and he says that it’s essentially about making real connections with people who share similar musical interests and values. He has a firm grip on what he is doing, what he wants to do in the future, and those clear perceptions allow him to find the people and organizations that are a good fit for him and his creative work. His goal is to gather a community of people who believe in his work—and vice versa—that will enable him to continue to write the best music he possibly can, and to continue growing as an artist for years to come.


I don’t feel like writing anything this week, much less this column. Last Monday, a very dear friend of mine was murdered while returning home from choir practice, and ever since then, everything just feels wrong.

Peter Marvit

Peter Marvit

I feel most sorry for those of you who never had the opportunity to meet Peter Marvit, because he was one of the very best people I have ever known. Equal parts compassionate, funny, and intellectual, Peter was loved by an incredible variety of people from all vocations and walks of life. His outfits alone—which were based around Hawaiian shirts with obliquely matched loud, wide, and short ties—literally brightened up every room he entered, but belied the incredible depth of empathy and intelligence that he brought to all of his conversations.

A scientist by vocation and a member of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, Peter was the best sort of music lover. He went to great lengths to seek out new experiences, and wanted to approach the most interesting art works on their own terms. No matter how obtuse and difficult the presentation, Peter was able to find the core values being expressed. I loved talking with him about his listening experiences because he generally would couch his opinions as the sorts of questions that would teach me to hear the music I love in new ways, and that often would drive me to reevaluate my own assumptions and biases. He also was the sort of friend who would trek from Baltimore to Philadelphia or New York to hear a premiere, where he would happily ensconce himself in the front row in order to concentrate deeply on the sounds with unwavering attention.

While I mainly want to hole up and to shut out the world until the pain subsides, I’ve been obliged to attend to those many aspects of my life that simply can’t wait. Classes need to be taught, meetings attended, and students advised, among the myriad other duties of my day job. In addition, I am finishing a piece that I must get to the player by the end of the month, and so I’ve found myself forced to sit down to face my own music.

I was quite surprised to discover that the only time that I’ve been at peace for the past week has been while composing. For me, this music that I’m writing appears to encompass the gamut of my emotions—the loss and also the fond memories of the friendship that was important enough to mourn the loss. At the moment, I’m finding that those things I am unable articulate in words can appear freely in the tones themselves. It’s possible that no one else will hear these sentiments, but the process of encoding them into this new work has begun my healing process.

Peter Marvit with Sparklers

At times, my conservatory classes have segued into discussions of why we pursue music at the highest level and how this activity fits into society as a whole. We innately grasp the power of art or we wouldn’t be there, and yet it can be surprisingly difficult to describe the vise-like grip in which music holds us. As I search for my own answer to these issues, I no longer feel as though I’m groping in the dark. If the act of creation can provide solace even in the face of a tragedy as immense as this one, then it truly is a powerful undertaking, one to be treasured, as essential as any other thing that provides sustenance.